The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963 did not kill the dream he inspired within me. A senior in high school, I knew that I would join the Peace Corps and go to a Francophone Africa nation.
On Wednesday, we will commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Peace Corps Act. Although it was created in 1961, the Peace Corps was inspired a year earlier by what Kennedy — then a candidate on the campaign trail — said in a 2 a.m. speech in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
I was not there that early morning, but his words still stick with me. Addressing a large crowd from the steps of the University of Michigan Union, he posed an improvised historic question to the weary crowd:
“How many of you who are going to be doctors are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the foreign service and spend your lives traveling around the world?
“On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think, will depend the answer whether a free society can compete.
“I think it can and I think Americans are willing to contribute. But the effort must be far greater than we have ever made in the past.”
Kennedy had instilled in me a desire to join the Peace Corps. American diplomat, politician and activist Sargent Shriver helped deliver this promise.
Kennedy’s vision has inspired 240,000 Americans to serve in 142 countries. That number includes 31,753 Californians. Kennedy did not ask for just two years of service. He asked for a lifetime of contribution to world peace.
He urged us not to ask what our country can do for us. Instead, we should ask what we can do for our country. Kennedy deepened our nation’s ability to live out key values —service, peace, sacrifice, commitment and learning from those we hope to serve.
Now, that service includes service to our planet. This anniversary is unlike any other. In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic required the evacuation of Peace Corps volunteers from all 61 countries in which Americans were serving. As a result, we will observe the 60th anniversary without Peace Corps volunteers in the field.
One of the top goals for the Peace Corps is to bring the experience home and to share our experiences. Those of us who served gained unique insights as we worked with host country nationals as neighbors and colleagues.
I was fortunate to have been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Côte d’Ivoire. Among the insights I gained during my service was a tremendous respect for different cultures. I learned the humility to understand how others coped with enormous difficulty with a grace and courage. That guiding light still inspires me.
I learned profound lessons from my students about coping with adversity, which made me a better teacher when I returned home. I have not forgotten that I have safe water, food and shelter. Many people still do not have that security.
I entered the Peace Corps hoping to bring my skills and commitment to communities around the world. I left enriched and grateful for what I had learned from those I had come to serve.
In a time of immense global challenges, it is important for us and our world to remember Kennedy’s call. Let’s understand that, to meet some of those needed changes, we need the Peace Corps.
I remain grateful to our former president for his vision and leadership.
Frank Price, of Berkeley, is vice president of the Northern California Peace Corps Association.
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